The sky over Cherbourg was decidedly overcast as I free-wheeled off the ferry onto French soil – a bit like the contents of my head. Two hangovers in two consecutive days; it was no wonder that the reality of leaving home and cycling to Cape Town had yet to sink in.

Cherbourg looked as unappealing at 7am to linger in as Poole would for any first time visitor. Catherine, my cycling partner for the week ahead, seemed to be in equal agreement.

The road south from the ferry port passed countryside little dissimilar to that I’d left behind in England, although I soon realised that my map of France was missing half the roads I really wanted to be cycling on. In order to explore the real French countryside something more detailed was necessary.

We stopped after 20km in the town of Bricquebec and I bought a regional map of Normandy. A whole new choice of route options now presented themselves and it soon dawned on me that France is really quite large when viewed at a scale of 1:125,000.

Big journeys need to be broken into small legs, although La Rochelle, where I was looking forward to a rest and reunion with friends from The Long Ride Home, lay over 600km away. With the new map my route planning soon involved as much spontaneous decision making that all cycle journeys in new lands should do. Making it up as one goes along is much more fun than pre-planning it all.

Once the grey skies cleared and we left the main road I quickly settled back into life on the saddle, finding a comfortable rhythm and appreciating the open spaces and fresh sights of the surrounding countryside. It felt great to be on the road again.

Towns and villages couldn’t have been much quieter as we headed south through Normandy, Brittany and the Loire. In fact the only people in France who don’t seem to take holiday in August are those working in Hypermarkets and Hairdressers. It was amusing, if a little frustrating to discover that whilst Boulangeries in many towns displayed closed signs in their windows, the local Coiffure would be open for business. They’ve become as familiar a sight over the past week as the most ubiquitous feature of every French town – the church. August may be a very peaceful time to be riding through France, but places have seemed a little incomplete and devoid of character without some activity on the streets. In fact the only real crowds we passed all week were at Mt St Michel, one of France’s most iconic locations and a highlight of the first week on the road.

Another highlight were the lunchtime breaks. These were taken in leisurely French fashion, although there was a slight problem in working out how to successfully carry a baguette on a bike without crushing it. Getting back in the saddle after a feast of cheese and pate is also not so easy.

I was wondering how Catherine would fair after a few days on the road. She’d sent me a text message shortly before arriving at the ferry port in Poole to say that her front brake cable had snapped. This wasn’t a good start, but both her and her beloved 100Euro bike proved as much an equal for me and my much more expensive Thorn. Even wild camping after cycling over 100km each day didn’t seem too much of an issue. It seemed I’d found the ideal cycling partner – a shame she had to return to England after a week.

The French countryside started to lose its colour as we continued south through the Loire region into Charentes. Greens became faded and it looked like rain hadn’t fallen in months. Sunflowers still stood in the fields, but I needed to be cycling here a month ago to have seen them at their glorious best. Late summer is a good time for foraging on what nature has to offer though. Hedgerows are laden with blackberries and we managed to avoid attention by picking apples, plums and grapes from the roadside (although the latter should really be left another month on the vines and would taste much better in a glass).

Catherine and I parted ways in La Rochelle, which left me with a hot 80km ride to the small village of Massac. This is close to the town of Cognac, and the home of  my friends  Xavier and Nathalie, a couple I first met in China during their 4-year World Cycling tour.

After eight continuous days on the road and 800km pedalled a rest stop is in order.

Many thanks to those who’ve so far made a donation to the Against Malaria appeal. There’s still a long way to go. Here are a selection of photos from the first week.